There is “not enough evidence” to prove that the coronavirus was spread in Wuhan before December 2019, a joint World Health Organization (WHO) and Chinese expert team probing the origins of COVID-19 in China has said. They disclosed their findings at a press briefing on Tuesday (February 9), quelling theories that Wuhan, in central China, was the epicentre of the pandemic that shook the world.
Addressing the press conference in Wuhan, Liang Wannian, head of the China team, said there is no indication of the transmission of SARS-CoV-2 in the local population before December 2019.
Records of 76,000 episodes in Wuhan health centres were analysed, and a detailed search for cases that may have been missed in early 2019 was carried out. But they failed to find any evidence of any large outbreaks of COVID-19 in Wuhan between October and December of 2019. Transmissions happened from other areas as well, and it is difficult to confirm that the virus emerged from the Huanan sea food market, Wannian said.
The Chinese Health Commission expert went on to add that the virus could have been circulating in other regions before it was identified in Wuhan at the end of 2019.
Meanwhile, Peter Ben Embarek, the WHO’s food safety and animal disease specialist and chairman of the investigating team visiting China, told the media that they have eliminated a controversial theory that COVID-19 stemmed from a Wuhan lab.
“The laboratory incident hypothesis is extremely unlikely to explain the introduction of the virus into the human population,” said Embarek. “Therefore, it is not in the hypotheses that we will suggest for future studies.”
The WHO scientists have also failed to identify the source of the animal behind the pandemic. Experts believed that the disease had originated from bats and could have been transmitted to humans via another mammal. Clarifying that animals were the possible route of this virus, he said so far “the reservoir hosts remain to be identified”.
The Huanan market deals with frozen sea food and domesticated wildlife, and so they were studying possible transmissions from felines, pangolins and other species, said Embarek, according to media reports.
A 14-member WHO team has been in China since January 14 this year, investigating the source of the coronavirus, and how it spread so rapidly, leaving a trail of millions dead and massive economic impact across the world. The international team, was made up of people with expertise in veterinary medicine, food safety and epidemiology.
Embarek had said about their mission’s purpose: “If we find the source and if it’s still out there, we can prevent future reintroduction of the same virus into the human population.” But the team members had warned that it was virtually impossible to find “patient zero”, the first patient to have contracted the virus.
The WHO team has wrapped up their study and will be leaving China shortly. It visited hospitals during its investigations, such as the Hubei Provincial Hospital of Integrated Chinese and Western Medicine, where the first cases of what was then diagnosed as pneumonia of unknown origin on December 29, 2019, was reported.
They also visited a museum exhibition dedicated to the early history of COVID-19. But all eyes, especially that of the international media, were trained on them, when they went to the Huanan Seafood Market for about an hour on January 31.
On December 31, 2019, after four cases of a mystery pneumonia were linked to this wet market, it was closed down overnight and by January end, the industrial city of Wuhan had imposed a 76-day lockdown.
On February 1, 2021, the group spent the maximum time of about four-and-half-hours at the Wuhan office of the Hubei Province Centre for Disease Control and Prevention. Mike Ryan, the WHO’s top emergency official, said at the time: “We continue to ask the questions, we continue to push for more data.”
Also read: WHO team starts Wuhan virus probe
The WHO team’s key stop, however, was the Wuhan Institute of Virology, where it met Dr Shi Zhengli, a specialist on bat coronaviruses, also known as ‘Bat Woman’. Shi was among the first to isolate the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
The WHO group also met with residents and interacted with people, who had recovered from the virus, as well as community workers. The experts learned about how those infected with the virus were treated and recovered, as well as the daily lives of people in Wuhan during and after the outbreak.
However, the team members had always clarified that a single visit by scientists is unlikely to confirm the origins of the coronavirus. It is usually an exhaustive endeavour since it involves years of research, including taking animal samples, genetic analysis and epidemiological studies.
Meanwhile, the Chinese government has tried to shift the focus for the cause of the pandemic to “imported frozen food” as a possible conduit. An accusation that the WHO has refuted. There is no evidence of the virus being spread by food or packaging, the WHO has clarified.
Chinese health experts believed that Wuhan is just a stop for virus origin tracing, and that the team of experts should not expect to find an answer here. It is scientifically impossible, as there were cases found in other countries even before the outbreak in Wuhan was reported, one health expert said.
Overseas health experts dispute this claim.